Book Review: On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe


Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £22.


Of all the plethora of books on early modern American (and specifically, Indigenous) history out recently, if you are to pick just one for your summer reading list, Caroline Dodds Pennock’s, senior lecturer of International History at the University of Sheffield, On Savage Shores is a candidate for easily the most ground-breaking work of this year. Experienced scholars and early-career academics alike might find that Pennock’s monograph completely and gracefully overturns our standard conceptions of what we think we know about the Indigenous world shortly after the fabled Americas became a presence in the European minds.

One thing that struck me in particular about On Savage Shores was the highly respectful and yet surgically precise manner in which Pennock dismantles both negative and positive stereotyping associated with the notion of Indigeneity. For a scholar seeking to look beyond the recognisable myths encircling the actual facts, this book is invaluable.

To start, Pennock from the outset highlights the astonishing diversity of what one unfortunately is too ready to jumble together under the umbrella notion of Native People, pointing out that Americas at the time were a kaleidoscope of communities ‘far from homogenous in their attitudes or outlooks’.[i] This plain statement cements the book’s tone from the start: it will be about multitudes of stories – some legendary, forming part and parcel of subsequent historical narratives, and others, highly personal and intimate in nature. Though perhaps focusing just a few per cent more on the Hispanic world rather than North Americas, Pennock’s book is an analysis that has people at its heart and yet respects the fact that the fates of Indigenous individuals finding themselves in Europe of the early modern era were as different as one can possibly imagine. Some were tragic (like the fate of three Inuit captives brought to England by Martin Frobisher), some were happier than others; some contained highly amusing episodes (such as the account of the Four Indian Kings or chiefs attending a Shakespearean play in London in 1710 and attracting more attention than the entire production of Macbeth[ii]); others still look at us from the records of bitter legal disputes or folkloric, semi-mythical memories.

At the core of the monograph is Pennock’s argument which has the potential to completely change the way that we view transatlantic exchanges at the time. The author reveals that the presence of Indigenous individuals in Europe was far from sporadic and rare. Those who came as family members, servants, converts, diplomats, prisoners or ambitious young people exploring the world, amalgamated into the European communities, some adapting better than others, but forming a significant, if rarely discussed presence. ‘[T]he European past may have been a more diverse place than it is sometimes painted’, states Pennock, presenting one with an image radically different from the conventional representations of European newcomers in the New World.[iii] Her vision is a mirror image of the European experience across the Atlantic, previously all but unfamiliar to most readers, and spellbindingly lively. The author laments the fact that concerning the Indigenous populations at the time, they are still, up to present day thrown together as some abstract mass labelled “Natives,” and, in mainly Eurocentric sources, ‘their presence is blurred so that they become merely a distorted caricature in the origin story of the nation’.[iv] Pennock also depicts a busy and spirited exchange of cultural practices (such as the introduction of cocoa and tomatoes into staple European diet), scientific discoveries and assimilation of American species and plants on European soil, which yet again, she laments, ‘often excludes Native peoples, focusing on elite men who wrote the scientific, medical and natural histories […]’.[v]

Pennock carries out an incredible, titanic task of overturning this extremely bigoted view by trying to give a voice to the multitudes who made their perilous journey across the ocean expanses towards ‘strange shores with curious, savage customs’.[vi] It goes without saying that Pennock had a mammoth of a challenge in this; salvaging the names and the places from a chaotic mishmash of historical sources (some being as laconic as a receipt for money paid to a private tutor, or a signed codicil to a will, or a passing mention of a name when describing a courtly entertainment), the majority of which fail to give due heed to the mestizo or indio individuals they nonchalantly mention. Many would have heard of Malintzin, known as Dona Marina, and some might also know of her and Hernan Cortes’ son, Don Martin, who would re-emerge in Philip II’s court as a refined young page seemingly embracing the Spanish manners and fashions of the time. However, how many of us would have known the story of three Inuit people stranded among the rough and intimidating world of Elizabethan London? Kalicho, Arnaq and her child Nutaaq, taken by force by Martin Frobisher’s followers in the autumn of 1576 and brought to England partly as hostages, partly as representatives of strange outlying realms? Their story is a poignant, even triggering one, as we are made to re-live, together with them, their captivity, the vulnerability to unnamed diseases tearing through London’s bewildering streets, and final demise. How many of us would recollect straight away the parable-like story of two Algonquian men, Mateo and Wanchese, whose fates were so identical and yet radically different?[vii] How many of us, outside Brazil, know about Guaibimpara, or, as she was later named, Catharina Paraguassu, whose figure is similar to Malintzin in terms of historic importance as ‘the Indigenous mother of Brazil’, even though, as the author admits, references to her actual biography are at best scant?[viii] Pennock juxtaposes this and similar accounts to the mythologised, Disney-like accounts of ‘good Indians’, romance and conquest, by calling forth the true life stories, which are seldom cheerful or ethically straightforward.[ix] The tapestry of those lives is echoed by brief, but tantalising references to other historical personages of multi-ethnic, though not necessarily Indigenous backgrounds: such as the Duke of Penne, the illegitimate son of an African slave and Pope Clement VII.[x] Their stories may be told only in passing, but it is all the more enticing for a scholar to seize upon those clues, which Pennock has so generously scattered through the text.

What is important to bear in mind, the author tells us, is the diversity of Indigenous experience abroad. She neatly dedicated a complete chapter each to a separate theme: there is a chapter dealing with experiences of enslaved individuals; another one discussing the cases of interpreters and Native guides; chapters addressing familial connections, diplomats and cultural envoys, and last but not least, the stories of those brought to Europe as primarily ‘the object of curiosity’.[xi] Pennock reiterates that it would be impossible to apply a cookie-cutter framework to what might have been a typical Indigenous experience of Europe, for there was no such one. However, we must move our imaginations from the images shaped by predominantly European minds to truly comprehend the era and ‘a world where “other” peoples were starting to become visible’.[xii]



End notes:

[i] Caroline Dodds Pennock, On Savage Shores: How Indigenous Americans Discovered Europe (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2022), xiv.

[ii] Ibid., 213

[iii] Ibid., 9

[iv] Ibid., 8

[v] Ibid., 165

[vi] Ibid., 1

[vii] Ibid., 94-105

[viii] Ibid., 126

[ix] Ibid., 86

[x] Ibid., 127

[xi] Ibid.,212

[xii] Ibid., 236


About Olga Akroyd

Olga Akroyd is a graduate of University of Kent (American Studies, 2020) where she worked on a comparative analysis of landmark texts by Herman Melville and Feodor Dostoevsky for her PhD thesis. Currently she is engaged in research for her forthcoming monograph on John Randolph of Roanoke (1773-1833) as an Associate Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, and she is also a member of GIRES (Global Institute for Research, Education and Scholarship) where she delivers individually designed lecture courses on American literature, gender, race and belonging.
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